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Buried Steel Treasure: Big Book Of Pocket Knives…and the discovery of Belknap-John Primble knives
A few months ago, I discovered an absolutely wonderful series of books. All of the books in the series are authored by the team of Ron Stewart and Roy Ritchie. These fine gentlemen have been around for quite a while…and their names are likely quite familiar to any serious collector of vintage pocket knives. Even though I’ve been collecting for four decades, I had never run across this particular series of books. The name of this series is “Big Book of Pocket Knives”. The very first book is titled…”Big Book of Pocket Knives”…and each successive book in the series shares that title with an addendum referencing the “edition” (i.e. “Second Edition”).
One of the things that makes the Big Book of Pocket Knives series so great…is that it covers a wide variety of pocket knife companies. Each release covers an array of different manufacturers, their offerings and the values of the various knifes listed. Generally, the images that display the knives are taken from old catalogs and are hand renderings rather than photos. Personally, I really enjoy this design aspect and it makes the reading of the books much more interesting and enjoyable. It is through the first edition in the series that I discovered the Belknap-John Primble brand of traditional pocket knives. For me, this discover was akin to discovering buried treasure!
Before we get going, it’s probably worth me giving you a very brief bit of information. The Belknap Hardware Company was originally founded by William Burke Belknap in 1840 in Louisville, Kentucky. The company started out producing iron products such as horse shoes, nails, spikes and such. Lets establish a little historic perspective; Mr. Belknap’s contemporaries were the likes of E.C. Simmons and A. F. Shapleigh…whose respective companies achieved remarkable success. Mr. Belknap ran the company for 40 years…and, arguably, can be considered an inspiring example of American entrepreneurial spirit! The Belknap Hardware Company’s catalog eventually consisted of more than 117,000 items. Unfortunately, this grand American company ran out of economic gas in 1986 (though it outlasted two of it's giant competitors; Simmons and Shapleigh). During it’s existence, it sold a variety of trademarked “brands” of product. One such brand was the John Primble offering of traditional pocket knives (initially started in 1931). Interestingly, it is the longest “continuous” line of cutlery in America! With this background covered, it's time to see an example of Belknap-John Primble Knives...
The example shown in the photo below is a model 921 Serpentine Pen Knife. It is a small knife, measuring 2 ¾” long (closed). It is a 3-bladed affair, consisting of a main clip blade, a small sheepsfoot blade and a small pen blade. The clip and sheepsfoot blades are swedged. The handle scales are listed in the Big Book of Pocket Knives as “bone stag”, but in looking closely at this particular knife, I’d say that these are Delrin. The knife appears to have a nickel silver shield, brass pins, nickel silver bolsters, brass liners and steel backsprings.
The person that sold me this knife claimed that it was mint in box (you can see the unlabeled box in the background) and that it had never been carried or sharpened. Close examination verifies those claims, though the presentation side of front bolster shows some rub marks. In any event, the overall quality of this little knife is exceptional. Each component it tightly fitted to it’s neighboring components (no gapping between scales, liners, backsprings and bolsters). The blades have excellent snap. The swedges are beautifully ground and the blades are nicely polished.
Ok…so we have a knife from a company that no longer exists. And the knife is well made. So what? Alright…I know…you are collectors…and realize that there's more to this than meets the eye. The knife appears to date between 1940 and 1960. That it’s in so good of condition for being that old is not just a result of it sitting in a drawer for decades. It’s a result of the inherent quality of manufacturing that went into the knife. Guess what? This small, exceptionally polite and moderately refined little gal comes with a “surprise”. This feature is very uncommon amongst most “production” slip joint knives…be they from the late 1800s to present. Take a look at the photo shown below to see what I’m talking about.
Hey. What’s with all of those little marks on the backs of the liners? Well...that's decorative milling on those liners (a production version of the "filework" we sometimes see upon the spines of custom knives). Pretty cool, huh? Yep. Well...maybe even more pretty than cool? There’s more to this little lady than first meets the eye. Seems like an odd thing to do to a knife with plastic handle scales. Am I sure that the scales are plastic (Delrin)? Yeah. The coloring and jigging is way too consistent for it to be bone or stag. Contrary to “common” opinion, not all “plastic” is junk…or particularly cheap. In fact, it can be very durable, consistent, resilient and quite practical. So…in this case, we get “practical” with some subtle prettiness! I rather like her…and think that she is a fine, fine addition to my collection. Truly…a wonderful piece of Buried Steel Treasure.
Typically, the Primble brand of knives were made for Belknap by Boker, Camilus, Case, Schrade and Utica. At this point, I do not know which company made this particular knife. I’m inclined to rule out it being made by Boker, Case or Schrade. Why? A fair amount of study seems to indicate that the detail work in this sweetheart of a knife isn’t indicative of any of those companies. I could be wrong, of course…but reviewing the work of Camilus and Utica seems to indicate that both companies did this kind of detailing at various points in time.
I do find it surprising that a company whose motto and general business philosophy was “Primble—goods of honor” has vanished. I think that most US-born adults over the age of 40 recognize that today’s America is getting further and further away from it’s root principles and value system. Sure…nothing stays the same…countries, societies and cultures change. Human history absolutely demonstrates this. Still, human history also clearly demonstrates that greatness is most often the result of doing the right thing. I think that Belknap…as a company…did achieve a level of “greatness”.
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